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05 FEBRUARY, 2015

The People’s Platform: An Essential Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Cultural Commons in the Age of Commerce

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“We are embedded beings who create work in a social context, toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labor bears fruit. It is up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant.”

C.S. Lewis memorably wrote that art and philosophy — in other words, the substance of what we call human culture — have no survival value but, rather, give value to survival. The kind of value he had in mind, of course, was spiritual. And yet half a century later, we’ve stifled our way into a system that assesses art and philosophy and human culture for their economic value as market commodities — they’ve been reduced to that depressingly derogatory term for cultural material: content.

One chilly autumn afternoon a few years ago, I sat on a park bench in Brooklyn with writer, activist, documentary filmmaker, and kindred cautious idealist Astra Taylor to talk about how and why we got here, and what we can do to save the ennobling thought-things that give value to human survival. Ours was one of many conversations Taylor had in the process of researching and writing her magnificent and enormously important manifesto for the survival of our cultural commons, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (public library) — a look at what the internet has promised us, how it has failed us in delivering on those promises, and what we can do to shed its burdens and carry its blessings forward.

Illustration from Theodor Nelson's pioneering 1974 book 'Computer Lib | Dream Machines' found in '100 Ideas that Changed the Web.' Click image for more.

Taylor writes:

As a consequence of the Internet, it is assumed that traditional gatekeepers will crumble and middlemen will wither. The new orthodoxy envisions the Web as a kind of Robin Hood, stealing audience and influence away from the big and giving to the small. Networked technologies will put professionals and amateurs on an even playing field, or even give the latter an advantage. Artists and writers will thrive without institutional backing, able to reach their audiences directly. A golden age of sharing and collaboration will be ushered in, modeled on Wikipedia and open source software.

In many wonderful ways this is the world we have been waiting for. [But] in some crucial respects the standard assumptions about the Internet’s inevitable effects have misled us.

The argument regarding the internet’s impact, Taylor notes, has become bereft of nuance and has settled into one of two camps from which soundbites are fired at the other — techno-skeptics, in the tradition of Alvin Toffler, admonish us that we’ve become a herd of “skimmers, staying in the shallows of incessant stimulation,” while techno-optimists assure us that we’re “evolving into expert synthesizers and multitaskers, smarter than ever before.” Such polarization — like all polarization — seems rather impoverishing. Much of it pits technology against humanism which, as Krista Tippett has elegantly asserted of science and spirituality, ask wholly different questions rather than providing different answers to the same question. Indeed, Taylor targets this with exquisite precision:

These questions are important, but the way they are framed tends to make technology too central, granting agency to tools while sidestepping the thorny issue of the larger social structures in which we and our technologies are embedded.

Newsgirls deliver newspapers in 1910. Public domain photograph by Lewis Hine (Library of Congress)

She notes that “new media” is quite a misnomer, for it implies both a counterpoint to and a supplanting of “old media” — and yet this is hardly the case. I, too, have often marveled at how much of Old Media’s legacy we’ve simply replicated and transposed onto new platforms — take, for instance, a newspaper editor’s remarkably prescient 1923 lament about commerce taking over cultural responsibility in journalism, or E.B. White’s 1975 admonition about the evils of corporate sponsorship in public media. Taylor agrees:

Many of the problems that plagued our media system before the Internet was widely adopted have carried over into the digital domain — consolidation, centralization, and commercialism — and will continue to shape it. Networked technologies do not resolve the contradictions between art and commerce, but rather make commercialism less visible and more pervasive… The pressure to be quick, to appeal to the broadest possible public, to be sensational, to seek easy celebrity, to be attractive to corporate sponsors—these forces multiply online where every click can be measured, every piece of data mined, every view marketed against. Originality and depth eat away at profits online, where faster fortunes are made by aggregating work done by others, attracting eyeballs and ad revenue as a result.

And yet her point is “not trying to deny the transformative nature of the Internet, but rather to recognize that we’ve lived with it long enough to ask tough questions” — questions that call on us to respond not with cynicism and resignation but with mobilized hope and lucid idealism as we peer forward into a more promising future for what proto-internet pioneer Vannevar Bush so poetically termed “the common record.” Taylor writes:

The truth is subtler: technology alone cannot deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead, we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it. Only then can we make good on the unprecedented opportunity the Internet offers and begin to make the ideal of a more inclusive and equitable culture a reality. If we want the Internet to truly be a people’s platform, we will have to work to make it so.

Paul Otlet's Mundaneum, an early-twentieth-century analog internet human-powered by a primarily female staff who answered queries by hand. Click image for more.

For one thing, Taylor admonishes that the artists, writers, and other craftspeople of culture are being shortchanged by the machinery of commercial interest and corporate power. She writes:

Wealth and power are shifting to those who control the platforms on which all of us create, consume, and connect.

[…]

Cultural products are increasingly valuable only insofar as they serve as a kind of “signal generator” from which data can be mined. The real profits flow not to the people who fill the platforms where audiences congregate and communicate — the content creators — but to those who own them.

[…]

During this crucial moment of cultural and economic restructuring, artists themselves have been curiously absent from a conversation dominated by executives, academics, and entrepreneurs.

Some artists, of course, are raising their heads and challenging the this-is-how-it-should-be-done-because-this-is-how-it-has-always-been-done paradigm of culture’s relationship with commerce. And yet, pointing to another realm where we’ve lost our sense of nuance, Taylor argues that in our fetishism of openness at all costs — that is, at no cost — we’ve forgotten the actual, physical, inescapably tangible costs of creating what we designate by the ethereal term “culture.” In the final chapter, aptly titled “Drawing a Line,” she writes:

When we talk about the cultural commons, it should be self-evident that production is a precondition of access. An article needs to be researched and written before it can be read; a canvas must be painted before it can be shown. Yet we live in a society oddly reluctant to recognize that this is the case. Dominant economic theories emphasize exchange: the value of a good has nothing to do with how it was made but, instead, the price it can command in the marketplace.

And when we try to break with the market to talk about gift economies, bestowing as opposed to buying, we still focus on the way things circulate rather than how they are created. More often than not, those who speak enthusiastically about the cultural commons stay safely inside what Karl Marx called “the noisy sphere” of consumption, “where everything takes place … in full view of everyone,” instead of descending into “the hidden abode of production,” which in fact shapes our world even if we choose to look the other way.

This means we are telling only half the story.

For a glimpse of the other half, for instance, consider the fact that by this point — nearly nine years into it — just keeping Brain Pickings functionally running costs me more than my rent each month. How much it costs to produce a single Radiolab episode or to merely keep Wikipedia’s servers going or to care for the millions of books preserved by The New York Public Library, I can only imagine — which is why I and many others donate to these creators and stewards of culture regularly. On top of these purely technical costs, of course, is the human labor — the time, thought, and love of bringing something to life — something meant to exist not because it is marketable but because it matters.

Embroidered map of the infant Internet in 1983 by Debbie Millman (courtesy of the artist)

Taylor captures this ecosystem of costs that create value beautifully:

A material reality supports the digital commons in all its facets: hardware, infrastructure, and content.

[…]

Creativity and commerce have a complex relationship and, in many ways, a necessary one. Nonetheless, a market in creative goods is different from creative marketing, and the latter is growing at the expense of the former. The mercantile climate has moved to the center; what was once an attribute has become a dominant feature.

Half a century after E.F. Schumacher exhorted us to stop prioritizing products over people and consumption over creativity, Taylor argues that the root cause of disturbing the vital balance between the two by drowning culture in commerce is the rise of ad-supported media. She considers the corner into which we’ve squeezed ourselves by relinquishing creative integrity for commercial profit:

The technology is still in its infancy, but we should pause to reflect on the profound nature of this transformation. Right now there are artists who agonize over whether to license their work for commercial purposes, and yet we have a situation where our very likeness is used to hawk doughnuts or shoes or whatever it may be without explicit permission being granted first. There are people going deeply into debt so they can work as journalists and truth tellers, but “sponsored content” is what they are told will pay the bills.

She worries that these changes will permeate the very fabric of what we believe is possible, and slowly warp our social standards:

Why worry about selling out when you are already an ad and have been your whole life? Why fret over the ethics of promoting yourself when you are already being used to promote something else? Under the “open” model, where the distinction between commercial and noncommercial has melted away, everything is for sale. When there is no distinction between inner and outer, our bonds with family and friends, our private desires and curiosities, all become commodities. We are sold out in advance, branded whether we want to be or not.

[…]

While it may look like we are getting something for nothing, advertising-financed culture is not free. We pay environmentally, we pay with our self-esteem, and we pay with our attention, privacy, and knowledge.

And yet all is not lost — far from it. While Taylor’s critique is not of the soft, compliment-sandwich kind, it is also inherently a beacon of hope rather than despair. She offers a number of strategies for fortifying our cultural commons and possible directions for expanding the horizon of the possible and living up to our potential as a species capable of honorable and ennobling deeds:

One positive step may be something deceptively simple: an effort to raise consciousness about something we could call sustainable culture. “Culture” and “cultivate” share the same root, after all: “Coulter,” a cognate of “culture,” means the blade of a plowshare. It is not a reach to align the production and consumption of culture with the growing appreciation of skilled workmanship and artisanal goods, of community food systems and ethical economies. The aims of this movement may be extended and adapted to describe cultural production and exchange, online and off.

[…]

We are embedded beings who create work in a social context, toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labor bears fruit. It is up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant. The notion of sustainable culture forces us to recognize that the digital has not rendered all previously existing institutions obsolete. It also challenges us to figure out how to improve them.

In the remainder of The People’s Platform, which is at once immensely important and full of Taylor’s deeply enjoyable prose, she goes on to examine how we can outgrow the limiting models we’ve inherited and find more ambitious new ways of making our world more beautiful, intelligent, and full of meaning. Complement it with this history of 100 ideas that changed the web, then revisit Belgian idealist Paul Otlet’s early-twentieth-century vision for a democratic “internet” and dear old E.B. White on the role and responsibility of the writer.

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18 MARCH, 2014

Marketing the Moon: How NASA Sold Space to Earth

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When the mission became the message and NASA undertook the monumental task of explaining rocket science to an audience looking to the stars.

It wasn’t until the soft beep…beep…beep of the Sputnik satellite reached Earth on October 4, 1957 that the Soviet Union could declare the first unequivocal success of their space program. The Soviets had launched Sputnik in secret, and the news took the United States by surprise. It was Soviet policy that every launch would be kept secret unless it was successful, and that its public would only be fed propaganda. The Soviet government would deny ever having attempted a manned lunar landing until 1990, and cosmonauts who died in the line of duty were erased from the public record. (The details of the training-accident death of Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut to orbit the earth, were covered up until 2013.)

One year after the surprise launch of Sputnik, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded. The U.S. space program was determined to be markedly different from the Soviets — it would be an “open program” in which facts and data would flow freely between the agency and the public using an extensive public relations program, explain authors David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek in Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (public library). It was a radical proposition: NASA, not the military, would release information and information would be released before, not after, a mission — an antithesis to the typical military strategy of confidentially. Tragedy would be reported alongside success.

Despite the somewhat cynical title, Marketing the Moon is not simply a story of the “selling” of the space program or the “spinning” of the NASA public relations machine — rather, it’s a rigorous and unvarnished look at one of the largest and most successful disseminations of science education in the twentieth century.

Reporters at Cape Canaveral during the launch of one of the Mercury missions

How could rocket physics, geology, astronomy, and more be explained to the lay person? How could the chain of information — from the lab to the Public Affairs Office to the TV producer to the host to the viewer at home — retain accuracy and clarity? Using rare press materials from the early days of NASA as well as the Apollo program — press releases, reference material, news bulletins, and photographs of reporters at work — Scott and Jurek show that the launch of a fact was as precarious as the launch of a missile: both could spectacularly fail to reach their targets.

The staff of the Public Affairs Office at Mission Control in Houston, 1965

The Public Affairs Office would control the consistency of the information, not its message. From the beginning, the office hired ex-newsmen to work as reporters inside the agency, determining which stories the public should know and in language that would be accessible — reporters knew what reporters would need. It was a move that today might be labeled “brand journalism,” but at the time was a revolutionary step for a government agency that needed its story told accurately and efficiently.

Press kits prepared for the major contractors in the Apollo programs, including IBM and Omega watches (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

Control, however, became the topic of one of the most controversial media relationships set up by NASA: the LIFE magazine / World Book contracts, which paid $500,000 to the Mercury 7 astronauts and their wives in 1959 (because then, decades before women took to the stars, women’s role in space exploration amounted to being astronaut wives), as well as a $100,000 life insurance policy that wasn’t provided by the government. It was easy to see the contract as “cashing in” on a project funded by taxpayers, but NASA had perhaps naively understood the contract as protecting the astronauts from being hounded or exploited by the media. The astronauts could only talk about their personal lives, not the missions.

The exclusive LIFE magazine coverage of the wives of the Mercury 7 astronauts

NASA created materials that addressed reporters’ needs in press releases, bylined articles, background materials, sponsored media symposiums, television newsreels, and fully produced radio broadcasts complete with interviews and sound effects. Every mission was explained pre-launch by the Public Affairs Office and reported with text and visuals far more elaborate than any press kit.

Before the Apollo 11 launch, journalists received The Apollo Spacecraft News Reference, a thick, three-ring binder with tabbed pages for easy thumbing. It included detailed diagrams of the command module, oxygen tanks, the spacesuit, and much more. It was an encyclopedia of technical information that would have been considered high-treason to release under the Soviets, but NASA considered the reference book an essential “classroom handout” for a proverbial public of fascinated students.

A series of books several hundred pages in length, that detailed technical concepts and vocabulary for reporters covering the Apollo 11 launch (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

Any advertisement that mentioned the space program had to be submitted to NASA in order to both maintain both factual accuracy and ensure that no product was directly endorsed. Contractors could advertise that their product had traveled to the moon, but not that it had been used. No astronauts could be shown in an ad, only their anonymous suited counterparts. Photographs taken in space were government-produced and therefore were in the public domain.

Advertisements couldn’t show the face of any astronaut, nor suggest the product had actually been used on a mission. This ad for Tang would have been vetted for accuracy by the Public Affairs Office.

Television proved to be one of the hardest and most important outlets for NASA to tell its story. The Public Affairs Office made sure that the producers had access to model spacecraft, maps, graphs, charts, as well as interviews with scientists and guidance about the right questions to ask. The mission was the message; the concept was easy to explain, the execution much harder. Walter Cronkite, who would propel CBS into the pole position during the Apollo 11 broadcast, relied on information from the Public Affairs Office as a much-needed crash course:

Covering the space program presented a challenge to us all… There was a great deal we had to learn about the mechanics of space flight and the idiosyncrasies of the physics of moving bodies in the weightlessness and atmosphere-free environment of space.

The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite during the tense coverage of the Apollo 13 mission. (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

The Public Affairs Office considered itself a champion of accurate scientific information, created to “furnish Congress and the media with the facts — unvarnished facts — about the progress of NASA programs,” explained its founder in 1959. Congress was just as important an audience, and it is an unfortunate reality that space education falls in and out of fashion with the budget of each new session. Public affairs was more than a perception, it was the life and death of the space program. When the lunar module of Apollo 11 began its fifty state tour, public relations was taken over by local affiliates, and the effect was more sideshow than science fair.

Dick Cavett interviews the Apollo 15 astronauts, 1971. (Courtesy Richard Jurek)

However, this is only the story of the public perception of NASA and the space program, not the public’s appetite for space, which has thrived for decades on the ecstatic visions of Carl Sagan, and has been reinvigorated with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s relaunch, and loving tribute, to Sagan’s Cosmos. With his clear yet poetic communication of complex scientific ideas, Tyson has championed science on all platforms and has mastered the art of the soundbite:

A soundbite is useful because it triggers interest in someone, who then goes and puts in the effort to learn more…

Communication of the work is as important as the work itself, something that Wernher von Braun knew as he stood to address the reporters at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center after the Apollo 11 astronauts were headed back to earth aboard the command module Columbia:

I would like to thank all of you for the fine support you have always given the program. Because without public relations and good presentations of these programs to the public, we would have been unable to do it.

For a bittersweet complement to Marketing the Moon, see Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s urgent and poetic antidote to the precarious fate of space exploration today.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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30 JULY, 2013

David Ogilvy’s Timeless Principles of Creative Management

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“If you ever find a man who is better than you are — hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.”

Advertising legend David Ogilvy endures not only as the original Mad Man, but also as one of modern history’s most celebrated creative leaders in the communication arts. From The Unpublished David Ogilvy (public library) — the same compendium of his lectures, memos, and lists that also gave us Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips on writing, his endearing memo of praise to a veteran copywriter, and his list of the 10 qualities of creative leaders — comes a chapter titled “Principles of Management,” based on a 1968 paper Ogilvy wrote as a guide for Ogilvy & Mather managers worldwide.

In a section on morale, he admonishes that some companies “have been destroyed by internal politics” and offers seven ways to curtail them:

  1. Always be fair and honest in your own dealings; unfairness and dishonesty at the top can demoralize [a company].
  2. Never hire relatives or friends.
  3. Sack incurable politicians.
  4. Crusade against paper warfare*. Encourage your people to air their disagreements face-to-face.
  5. Discourage secrecy.
  6. Discourage poaching.
  7. Compose sibling rivalries.

* Though Ogilvy was writing decades before email, the same applies with equal urgency to today’s electronic warfare.

Echoing Dickens, who advised his son to “never be hard upon people who are in your power,” and presaging the modern science of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the key to motivation at work, Ogilvy adds:

The best way to “install a generator” in a man is to give him the greatest possible responsibility. Treat your subordinates as grown-ups — and they will grow up. Help them when they are in difficulty. Be affectionate and human, not cold and impersonal.

Italo Calvino cautioned in his collected insights on writing that “one cannot say a priori that a writer just because he is a writer is more capable of handling ideas and of seeing what is essential than a journalist.” Similarly, Ogilvy notes the democratic nature of ideas and urges managers not to subscribe to siloed stereotypes:

Senior men and women have no monopoly on great ideas. Nor do Creative people. Some of the best ideas come from account executives, researchers, and others. Encourage this; you need all the ideas you can get.

Reflecting on mastering the pace of productivity, he argues:

I believe in the Scottish proverb: Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work. The harder your people work, the happier and healthier they will be.

Writing shortly after Arthur Koestler’s famous treatise on the relationship between humor and creativity, Ogilvy affirms the importance of that link in cultivating a creative environment:

Kill grimness with laughter. Maintain an atmosphere of informality. Encourage exuberance. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom.

In a section on respect, he calls for creative integrity:

Our offices must always be headed by the kind of people who command respect. No phonies, zeros or bastards.

In a section on hiring, he offers the two essential criteria for recruiting talent:

The paramount problem you face is this: advertising is one of the most difficult functions in industry, and too few brilliant people want careers in advertising.

The challenge is to recruit people who are able to do the difficult work our clients require from us.

  1. Make a conscious effort to avoid recruiting dull, pedestrian hacks.
  2. Create an atmosphere of ferment, innovation and freedom. This will attract brilliant recruits.

If you ever find a man who is better than you are — hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.

He adds a note on equality in hiring (though, on the cusp of the second wave of feminism and shortly after the Equal Pay Act, he makes no mention of equal opportunity for women):

In recruitment and promotion we are fanatical in our hatred for all forms of prejudice. We have no prejudice for or against Roman Catholics, Protestants, Negroes, Aristocracy, Jews, Agnostics or foreigners.

In a section on partnership within the company, he offers four points of advice:

It is as difficult to sustain happy partnerships as to sustain happy marriages. The challenge can be met if those concerned practice these restraints:

  1. Have clear-cut division of responsibility.
  2. Don’t poach on the other fellow’s preserves.
  3. Live and let live; nobody is perfect.
  4. “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considers not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

In a section on comers, exploring the management of talent, he reiterates some his 10 criteria for creative leaders and advises:

The management of manpower resources is one of the most important duties of our office heads. It is particularly important for them to spot people of unusual promise early in their careers, and to move them up the ladder as fast as they can handle increased responsibility.

There are five characteristics which suggest to me that a person has the potential for rapid promotion:

  1. He is ambitious.
  2. He works harder than his peers — and enjoys it.
  3. He has a brilliant brain — inventive and unorthodox.
  4. He has an engaging personality.
  5. He demonstrates respect for the creative function.

If you fail to recognize, promote and reward young people of exceptional promise, they will leave you; the loss of an exceptional man can be as damaging as the loss of an account.

The rest of his principles go on to explore such intricacies as the perils of leadership, the art of cat-herding creative people, and how to know when to resign a client. It’s worth reiterating just how excellent and timeless The Unpublished David Ogilvy is in its entirety.

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